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The best free writing software 2020: tools for novelists and creative writers

The best free software for writers
(Image credit: Future)

We've hand-picked the very best free writing software, which will make it easier to plan, write without distractions, and prepare your work for publication.

Microsoft Word is the default tool for many writers, but a subscription to Office 365 is pretty expensive if you only need the word processing element.

There's often a better option for those of us starving in garrets: free software. Come with us as we discover the best free apps to turn your writing talent into something tangible.

The programs here are specifically created with writing in mind, and are packed with thoughtful extras to make your life easier, particularly for creative tasks that require your full concentration.

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The best writing software overall is: Scrivener
Scrivener is packed with all the features a novelist needs, helping you track plot threads, store notes on characters and locations, structure your work and (most importantly) get some serious work done. It's not free like the tools below, but it's well worth the investment if your budget will allow it.

FocusWriter

(Image credit: Shutterstock; Graeme Gott)

1. FocusWriter

Keep your mind on your work with the best free writing software

Operating system: Windows, macOS, Linux

Blocks all distractions
Timers and alarms
Auto-save function
All desktop operating systems

Available for Linux, Windows and macOS, FocusWriter is designed to eliminate distractions so you can actually get on with the job of writing. To that end, it enables you to hide other apps, customize the way your text appears on screen and keep track of your progress. If you're feeling particularly old-school you can even add typewriter sound effects.

FocusWriter isn't for everyone – it's not the right tool for going back through and editing your work – but it's a lovely little app with a very modest footprint that stops you keeping an eye on Twitter all day.

Read our full FocusWriter review

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WriteMonkey

(Image credit: Shutterstock; pomarancha)

2. WriteMonkey

A text editor that cuts down on distractions, not features

Operating system: Windows, macOS, Linux

Distraction-free interface
Supports markup
Handy keyboard shortcuts
Only works with TXT files

We're big fans of Markdown, the text-editing language that enables you to format, annotate, classify and link as you type with the minimum of fuss, and the superb WriteMonkey makes good use of it.

This free writing software delivers an incredibly stripped-down user interface that's considerably more powerful than it looks. There's an excellent outliner, automatic syntax highlighting and file organisation, and although markdown takes a bit of getting used to, you'll be very glad you made the effort.

Once you've mastered WriteMonkey, you can use it to create blog posts, print publications and anything else that needs words in it.

Read our full WriteMonkey review

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LibreOffice Writer

(Image credit: Shutterstock; The Document Foundation)

3. LibreOffice Writer

A fully-featured free alternative to Microsoft Word

Operating system: Windows, macOS, Linux

Excellent format compatibility
Document template galleries
Support for plugins
No mobile app

LibreOffice is a free, open source alternative to Microsoft Office, and that means its word processing app, Writer, has many of the power features of Word without the accompanying price tag.

It's a great choice for writers, with a full set of editing tools, a thesaurus, dictionaries for pretty much any language you can think of, and an active community in the support forums ready to help with any questions you might have.

It's available for Windows, macOS and Linux, and receives regular updates with new features and bug fixes.

The only real drawback compared to Word is the lack of direct cloud support, although you can easily use this free writing software together with a service like Dropbox, and the absence of a mobile app for working on the move. If you're happy to stick with the desktop then this could be the only word processor you need.

Read our full LibreOffice review

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Scribus

(Image credit: Shutterstock; The Scribus Team)

4. Scribus

Create great-looking magazines and books without InDesign

Operating system: Windows, macOS, Linux

Professional-level design tools
Supports layers
Cross-platform
Easy PDF export

If your words' appearance is as important as their meaning, give Scribus a go: it's a free, highly-rated desktop publishing application for Linux, OS X and Windows that's suitable for producing entire magazines.

It's been kicking around – and regularly updated – since 2001, and while it's a little tricky to use at first, it offers professional-grade publishing with layered, multi-page documents and good colour management support. If you've ever used Adobe InDesign, you'll find the similarity striking. If you can use one, you'll pick up the other in seconds.

We wouldn't want to lay out a 400-page book in it (though that's quite possible), but for shorter works this free writing software is ideal.

Read our full Scribus review

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FreeMind

(Image credit: Shutterstock; Jörg Müller, Daniel Polansky, Petr Novak, Christian Foltin, Dimitri Polivaev)

5. Freemind

Organize your ideas and defeat writer's block before it can strike

Operating system: Windows, macOS, Linux

Very flexible
Supports complex diagrams
Collapsible branches
Looks a little old-fashioned

Here's another app for writers that isn't strictly for putting your words on the screen: Freemind is all about mind mapping, and it enables you to record all the leaps and bounds your imagination makes whether you're plotting a potboiler or trying to organize complex threads of an investigation.

Freemind isn't something we'd necessarily recommend for mind mapping beginners – it looks a bit like a desktop publishing app having some kind of breakdown – but if you're an experienced intellectual explorer it's a lot tidier than a wall full of index cards and sticky notes. Used together with your favorite free writing software, it's invaluable.

Read our full Freemind review